Scottish Government Credibility On The Line As Fishermen Lose Trust
The discard ban for white fish is fast approaching. In less than six months fish once discarded at sea will be brought ashore; some will be counted against quota, but unless there is a significant increase in those quotas in December, most won’t. They will have to be disposed of by some means or other, all under the additional strictures of the Animal By-Products Directive.
There will be costs for fishermen, of that there is no doubt - on board sorting and storage for a start. However, the shore-side costs could well be the devil. The European Parliament Fisheries Committee recognised this, and negotiated the regulation accordingly. We knew fine well that failure to get shore-side handling right risked undermining the ban pretty much from the get go. That’s why we ensured that the responsibility rested with member states.
Imagine a vessel landing six boxes of fish that would previously have been discarded. Now if there are facilities shore-side for handling the unwanted fish, for ferrying them to a suitable processor, then the problem and the cost may be modest. In some of the larger ports this might be so. Imagine though the six boxes are landed at a small port or an island port with no such facilities. There they have to be iced and stored until disposal can be arranged. Six boxes are not enough to incentivise a would be meal-merchant or disposal agent to hot foot up to collect them. Indeed the costs of travel and transit would almost certainly outweigh the value of the fish. Even sixty boxes of low value fish wouldn’t be a strong temptation if the port is remote or on an island. So there the fish rest, frozen, until something can be done. And who pays, well, according to the Scottish Government, that would be the fishermen.
When fishermen raise the issue, Mr Lochhead always claims the real problem is the small share of European Maritime & Fisheries Fund negotiated by the UK Government. Lochhead’s argument is that Scotland is a big fish catcher and therefore deserves big fish funds. I have called Mr Lochhead out on this before, but still he peddles his line. The fund is not allocated on the basis of landings - if it was then the funds would be heading pelagic-ward. Instead, two other criteria determine the allocation: the number of individuals employed and the relative share of the small-scale coastal fishing fleet. Oh, and let's not forget that when the issue was voted on in the European Parliament Mr Lochhead’s own group voted against the fund in its entirety, claiming it was, ‘in direct conflict with the goal of more sustainable fisheries.’ But I digress; this is not an EMFF issue.
Given the importance of the shore-side liability issue, and the seeming confusion in the Scottish Government ranks, I have been trying to get a meeting with Richard Lochhead to sort things out. As the only Scot involved in the European negotiations on the landings obligation, you might have thought he would be keen for a sit down. Nothing could be further from the truth. I first asked for a meeting at the beginning of June. It's now the beginning of July. Mr Lochhead’s officials tell me he is off on his hols on Monday, bucket and spade in hand no doubt, so the prospect of a meeting this side of summer is fast receding.
As I explained to Mr Lochhead’s officials - it hasn’t even been possible to speak to him on the phone. The meeting would not just be with me, but would also include representatives of the catching sector and POs, all of whom have raised concerns since the Scottish Government announced its position. That didn’t seem to matter. The best I could get, with only three days’ notice, was the prospect of a meeting in Elgin, where Mr Lochhead lives. Given that Ian Hudghton MEP and I were expected to fly from Brussels, and folks were joining from Kirkwall, Lerwick, Aberdeen and Edinburgh, the combined round trip for us all would have been 8,752 km. All so Mr Lochhead could walk from his house to his office. Not surprisingly, the meeting did not happen.
Richard Lochhead’s last role of the dice, after I had pointed out the challenges his proposal represented to everyone but him, was to say that he would cover the issue during his meeting with Clyde fishermen on the disastrous Marine Protected Area proposal (another example of the Scottish Government’s unwillingness to listen to fishermen; can you spot a trend?). Neither Ian Hudghton nor I can go. We have to be in Strasbourg. Representatives of Shetland and the SWFPA, whose fishermen will be most affected, were surprised to learn that the vital issue is being crow-barred into the Clyde discussions, and are trying to re-schedule. No invite at all for the POs.
Now it is important that Clyde fishermen are involved in the discussions, but let’s be clear, covering a key topic of vital interest to every demersal fisherman, for a few minutes after what is likely to be an already stormy meeting on the Clyde MPA issue is just nonsensical. It does not do justice to the importance of the issue, nor the need for fishermen to hear from the Scottish Fisheries Minister’s own lips why he has decided to interpret the EU fishing regulation in the manner most likely to cause trouble for Scottish fishermen.
So I am calling out Richard Lochhead. Treat fishermen with the respect that they deserve. Stop dodging. Stop weaving. Convene a meeting of the Scottish fleet and shore-side industries, with more than a few days’ notice, and speak to those most affected by your pernicious interpretation of EU law. Fishermen are losing trust with the Scottish Government on these issues and it's time their concerns were met with clear and concise answers.